YA – Realm Breaker

Aveyard, Victoria. Realm Breaker. Harper Teen, 2021. 978-0-062-87262-3. 563 p. $19.99. Grades 8-12.

Aveyard returns with a lush new fantasy series that feels like a cross between King Arthur and Game of Thrones. A new player has come to the Ward, a man with the power to open Spindles, portals between realms. Spindles have not been opened for generations, not since the Immortals traveled into the Ward and found themselves stranded, unable to return to their home. But now Taristan has stolen the sword to create spindles, and begun releasing monsters and undead creatures into the world. Those knights who survived the initial battle between good and evil realize what Taristan is unleashing, yet few rulers care to believe them. The Immortal Domacridhan knows what it will take to stop Taristan – an individual with Corblood, and a Spindlesword – and he sets out to locate 17-year-old Corayne, an illegitimate daughter of the Cor lineage, who yearns for adventures her pirate mother refuses to grant her. The group gradually enlarges to seven unique characters, including a squire who lost his Lord at the first battle; a forger; a bounty hunter; a witch; and Sorasa, an assassin who steals the story. With no support from the monarchs of the Ward, the ragtag group proceeds to try to close the spindles before their world is set ablaze. This first book in the series has a great deal of scene setting to accomplish, and Aveyard evokes a fascinating world of exotic lands and characters of all ethnicities and skin tones. A detailed map on the endpapers assists readers in keeping track of the sprawling territory, and at times the proliferation of characters, locales, and realms can be overwhelming, but the story is gripping and delightfully satisfying. While Corayne seems to be set up as the main character, the story rotates between all the voices, and each character is a well-developed personality: Andry, the 17-year-old squire has nobility ingrained in him, but slowly develops the ruthlessness needed to survive their quest; Dom, the Immortal, does not quite understand mortals; and Sorasa, the female assassin, just might have a heart under her tough persona. There is no shortage of action, battles, monsters, daring escapes, and breathtaking betrayals.

THOUGHTS: Fantasy lovers should flock to this new series and be waiting on the edge of their seats for the sequel.

Fantasy          Nancy Nadig, Penn Manor SD

Corayne an-Amarat is the daughter of a pirate, but she hasn’t had any adventures of her own. When she discovers that she’s the last of an ancient line, her world is changed forever. Corayne begins a journey along with Domacridhan of Iona, an immortal sworn to protect her, the assassin Sorasa Sarn, squire Andry Trelland, the forger Charlon Armont, bounty hunter Sigil of the Temurijon, and a witch named Valtik. Together, this fellowship sets out to stop Erida of Galland, the queen who chose to ally with villainous Taristan of Old Cor from using spindle magic to tear a rip between worlds, and save the Allward realm from their destruction.

THOUGHTS: This book reminds me of Game of Thrones but for a YA audience. The story is told through the perspective of a large cast of characters. Some of the characters are good and set out to defend their world while others, hungry for power, make questionable decisions that will determine the course of the future. Within the fantastical world of Realm Breaker, readers will experience action, adventure, and ancient magic along with pirates, assassins, and monsters. This also would be a great book recommendation for readers who aren’t looking for a strong love story, and it’s perfect for any fan of the high fantasy genre.

Fantasy           Emily Hoffman, Conestoga Valley SD

YA – Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet

Kemp, Laekan Zea. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet. Little, Brown and Company, 2021. 978-0-316-46027-9, 343 p. $17.99. Grades 8-12.

Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet hits all the right notes for a young person’s fantasy romance. In alternating narratives, the reader follows the growing romance between talented Mexican-American chef, Penelope (Pen) Parado, and undocumented restaurant worker, Xander Amaro. Nachos Tacos is Pen’s father’s restaurant in Austin, Texas, and the salvation of the neighborhood, providing a handout or employment to many, despite the glaring threat of a ruthless loan shark, J.P. Martello. The restaurant is dear to Pen’s heart–not only because it is there she can express her culinary skills–but also because of the sense of family it represents. She is devastated when she is banished from the restaurant after confessing to her parents that she has not attended a full semester of nursing school. Traditional Mr. Parado expects his older son, Angel, to carry on the business despite Angel’s disinterest. New employee, Xander, enters the wait staff on Pen’s last day, and though some point out her brash, bossy manner, he is smitten. Eighteen-year old, independent Pen finds a cheap apartment with the help of bff Chloe and a wretched job at a Taco Bell-like establishment. In spite of her take-charge personality, Pen suffers from self esteem issues and the narrative alludes to some self-harming; she does take medication for her low moods. In addition to being undocumented, Xander is actively searching for his father who left the family when Xander was a toddler and has never attempted contact with either Xander or his own father, Xander’s guardian. As the narration asserts, each has their own scars. The chapters develop with Pen dealing positively with her complicated love-hate relationship with her father and Xander’s appreciation of his feelings of belonging to the ragtag Nacho crew. Their days revolve around working in their respective restaurants, hanging out with the other Nacho workers, food, and their romance until the restaurant’s future is in jeopardy from the menacing loan shark. This antagonist brings the needed friction for the story, culminating in a predictable conclusion that leaves the reader with admiration for the resiliency of Pen and Xander and their Latinx neighborhood.

THOUGHTS: There is nothing too deep here or too risky (Pen and Xander have some deep kisses and smoldering feelings, but nothing more; some foul language and drinking). Latinx author Kemp tells an old-fashioned love story with the typical tropes but with more interesting words and the addition of some mental health and immigration issues. Her major and minor characters are likeable and developed. One unexpected relationship is Xander’s friendship with the local police officers, despite his undocumented status. Younger teens wanting a romance or older ones looking for an escape novel will be hooked.

Realistic Fiction          Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Obsession

San Jessie Q. The Obsession. Sourcebooks, 2021. 307 p. $10.99  978-1-728-21516-7. Grades 9-12.

Logan is suffering from the loss of his true love Sophie, who died by suicide two years ago. His friends don’t understand, he’s tired of trying to pretend he’s ok, and he wonders what’s left for him. Then he sees her: Delilah. Suddenly, everything is magical again. He hasn’t spoken to her beyond a brief hello, but he knows: She is the One. He begins watching her, learning her every perfect move, knowing her schedule and–from social media–her favorite music, foods, and more. Just as he did with Sophie (in fact, she’s almost Sophie’s twin), he orbits Delilah and must learn all he can about her. Logan is a true romantic.  Delilah is busy dealing with her own family problems: Since her dad died, her mom has fallen into an abusive relationship with police officer Brandon, who treats them both horribly and is convincing her mother to quit her job, have a baby, and leave the finances in his control. Delilah can’t stand how frightened of him they are. Meanwhile, Logan sets up cameras on Delilah’s house to protect his cherished girl, and that is how he witnesses the death of Brandon–aided by Delilah. Logan enchants Delilah on one perfect date (obviously easy, since he knows all her preferences), but then he reveals his secret video.  Delilah is horrified and trapped–or is she? She’s had enough of being controlled by fear, and by men. What if the perfect girl is the perfect murderer? Logan may not see the break-up coming.

THOUGHTS: Watching this story play out is interesting to see whether Logan or Delilah will gain the upper hand. How can one out-maneuver the other? Recommended as an alternative to the typical rom-com!

Suspense Fiction            Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

YA – Where We Are

McGhee, Alison. Where We Are. Atheneum/A Caitlyn Dlougy Book, 2020. 978-1-534-44612-0. $18.99. Grades 7-10.

Micah and Sesame had a plan. If Micah and his parents mysteriously disappeared from their home in present-day, downtown Minneapolis, Micah would text Sesame and she would find him. When Deacon comes to escort the Stone family to the South Compound, he confiscates their cell phones so Micah leaves a cryptic note on the wipe-off board on the refrigerator. The Stones have joined a cult that scorns all worldly things—even pencils—and cower and obey the harsh and unreasonable mandates of one man they call the Prophet. Not Micah. He resists and accumulates so many infractions for what the cold and domineering Prophet deems insubordination that the young man barely exists in solitary confinement. Though free, Sesame Gray lives a secret life. After her mother dies (she calls her grandmother because the woman was older when she adopted Sesame), she concocts stories so that neither her friends nor her solicitous neighbors suspect she is living alone in an abandoned garage. Throughout the book, Sesame reflects on both her grandmother’s goodness and also her habit of keeping them isolated and self-sufficient. That behavior serves Sesame well in her current situation, but her experience relying on others to help in the search for Micah brings a new realization that every person needs to depend on someone. High school seniors and sweethearts, Micah and Sesame narrate this curious story in alternating chapters: faithful Sesame on the outside, remains single-mindedly determined to find her lost boyfriend; resilient Micah, imprisoned in a basement laundry and wasting away, continues to leave clues, sure Sesame will find him. In the hands of a different writer, this book about cults and loss would be a toss off. Author Alison McGhee’s writing pulls the reader along this strange tale and makes us care about these two sensitive and insightful characters. Still, the subject manner is very particular and though there is the element of romance, their love is played out through devotion rather than a relationship, leaving the book with limited appeal. It is unclear what ethnicity the characters are (the cult and its members seem white); two neighbor couples are gay; it all is seamless.

THOUGHTS:  I have read other books by Ghee (Maybe a Fox), and admired her unique plot selections. A hide-and-seek love story centered around a cult but not really about the cult is unique, but not so interesting. The fact that present-day Minneapolis is the focal point of so much foment, violence, and pain, and Ghee picks that city to be the setting for a cult/kidnap/romance seems to me an odd-and avoidable-choice. The dust jacket states Ms. McGhee splits her residence between Minneapolis and another place, so perhaps the setting doesn’t matter. Though I couldn’t, I thought these factors promoted this book: subtle but solid theme, good writing, clever idea of creative Sesame to leave poems boxes around town, appealing characters. Like McGhee’s other books, this one fits only a narrow audience. 

Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia

YA – The Voting Booth

Colbert, Brandy. The Voting Booth. Hyperion, 2020. 978-1-368-05329-7. $18.99. 293 p. Grades 9 and up.

It’s election day, and Marva has been waiting for this day for her entire life. A passionate advocate for equality and democracy, her first election day is like a holiday for this high school senior in the running for valedictorian at her private prep school. Duke is less enthusiastic but is still getting up early to vote in his first election, too. His family’s passion about politics – particularly his activist brother’s who died two years ago – deems he participate in the democratic process. He knows it’s important to vote, but he’s more excited about his band’s first paying gig tonight. He learned to play drums as therapy after his brother’s death, but it turns out he’s really good at it. Marva is – of course – first in line at her polling place and casts her vote without issue. Just when she thinks she can head off to school and then relax on the couch tonight watching election results with her social media-famous cat Selma, she overhears Duke being rejected by the poll workers. Apparently he’s at the wrong polling place; he pre-registered at his dad’s address before his parents separated. Thus begins Marva and Duke’s adventure, a day exemplifying Murphy’s Law: everything that can go wrong does. First, Duke’s car won’t start as he tries to head to the correct polling place. Marva offers to drive him. Skipping school and driving around with a strange boy all morning probably isn’t the best idea, especially since Marva is sort-of fighting with her boyfriend of two years, but hey, this is important. Despite racism and voter suppression and parents and missing cats and an angry boyfriend and a gig Duke can’t miss, Marva and Duke can’t deny the positive thing resulting from this crazy day: that they found each other.

THOUGHTS: Another gem from award-winning author Brandy Colbert, The Voting Booth is a super cute romance that still manages to highlight serious issues. A very timely book that would pair well with another 2020 publication – Running by Natalia Sylvester – this book would serve as a fantastic independent or supplemental read in a Social Studies class discussing the voting process in America. Told in alternating points of view between Duke and Marva, so it appeals to both male and female readers. Highly recommended for all high school collections.

Realistic Fiction           Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD

YA – Miss Meteor

Mejia, Tehlor Kay, and Anna-Marie McLemore. Miss Meteor. Harper Teen, 2020. 978-0-062-86991-3. $17.99. 392 p. Grades 9 and up.

Meteor, New Mexico is a cheesy tourist town known for three things: the regional cornhole tournament, the Miss Meteor Pageant, and, of course, the huge meteor that landed there fifty years ago. Everyone knows that’s why the town is named “Meteor,” but they don’t know Lita landed there with it. Lita lives her human life now in Meteor with Bruja Lupe, her “mom,” who may or may not have come from the same space rock. Being of Mexican descent and the daughter of the town witch does nothing to help Lita in the popularity department. That doesn’t stop her from fantasizing over and pretending to enter and win the Miss Meteor Pageant as a kid, her best friend Chicky playing along as her manager. Things don’t get better for her over the years, though. Chicky ends their friendship abruptly in middle school, and since then it seems as though Lita is turning back into the stardust from which she came; tiny patches of it are visible under her skin. Also of Mexican descent, flannel-and-combat-boot-wearing Chicky has harbored a secret and has had to deal with bullying for most of her life, Miss Meteor pageant legacy Kendra Kendall being her harshest and most frequent bully. When Lita decides to go for her dream of Miss Meteor because she’s running out of time and has nothing to lose, Chicky decides to resume her role as Lita’s manager. Kendra Kendall losing the crown everyone expects her to win to the weirdest girl in town would be fitting, so it’s worth it to Chicky to rekindle her friendship with Lita to make it happen. How long can Chicky continue to keep her secret from her friend though, since that’s why she ended their friendship in the first place? Will Lita even make it to the pageant, or will she turn to stardust before it even starts? Find out in this beautifully written poignant story of friendship and self-love.

THOUGHTS: Miss Meteor is adorable and imaginative, and Tehlor Kay Mejia is quickly becoming a must-read YA author for me, personally. This book is co-written with Anna-Marie McLemore, and each author writes one of the main characters’ point of view in alternating chapter format. Lita is particularly quirky and innocent (which makes sense, given she’s made of stardust), and I found myself smiling a lot while reading this book… and laughing. And I may have shed a tear or two. While there are several instances of harsh bullying including homophobia and transphobia, this book is heartwarming overall with a cast of extremely lovable and diverse characters. Chicky’s sisters are hilarious, and the girls themselves as well as their friends/love interests are of various sexual orientations including a trans character. Highly recommended addition for all high school collections.

Fantasy (Magical Realism)          Sarah Strouse, Nazareth Area SD